Testing for Asbestos
Many homes built before the 1980s contain asbestos in construction materials. Generally, asbestos-containing materials are not harmful if they are intact, but frayed, worn, or otherwise damaged materials can release toxic fibers into the air. If you suspect you have damaged asbestos-containing materials in your home, it is best to treat them as if they do contain asbestos until you can have them tested.
Identification and Sampling
Unless the materials are labeled as containing asbestos, it is impossible to tell just by looking whether the material is dangerous. The EPA recommends isolating the area where the possible asbestos-containing material is found, keeping people as well as pets away, since mesothelioma has been known to develop in dogs and cats. Do not touch or walk on the material. If you are performing renovations, immediately cease work, since this can further disturb the asbestos and create toxic dust.
While it is possible to acquire samples of the material on your own, it is advisable to have a state-licensed inspector take the sample for you. An inspector will be trained to remove a sample without further disturbing the material and endangering the building’s residents. The inspector will also have the proper protective equipment, which you would otherwise need to purchase before dealing with possible asbestos hazards.
Once a sample is taken, it must be sent to a laboratory that has been accredited to test for asbestos. The National Institute for Standards and Technology keeps such a list under the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program and updates it regularly, most recently in April of 2011. Depending on the lab, workers may use either a Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM) or a Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) test. In a PLM test, the sample is viewed under polarized light to determine the optical properties of the substance. A TEM test, on the other hand, requires the microscopist to slice a very thin specimen and bombard it with electrons, forming an analyzable image.
If the material is found to contain asbestos, contact a licensed abatement team about encapsulation (coating the material in resin or other substance to prevent fibers from escaping) or removal. It is legal for homeowners to perform removal themselves, but it is highly inadvisable. Once again, professionals will have the right equipment to keep themselves as well as you and your family safe during the abatement process.